If any other Atlanta player but punter John James had been the last man between the Redskins' Mike Nelms and the Falcon end zone, Nelms might have scored his first punt return touchdown of the season today.

But Nelms said he couldn't "stand the thought of having a kicker tackle me." Instead of trying to run either by or over James at the Falcon 30, Nelms decided to fake out the prospective tackler with a fancy move.

The tactic backfired. Nelms slipped as he tried to cut toward midfield and was downed anyway by James. Washington's return specialist still wound up with a season-best 64-yard return, but he was upset afterward that he didn't score.

"I've been trying to break one all year," he said. "This time, I though I had it. Once I broke through the first tacklers, I knew they weren't going to catch me from behind for a while. And I didn't think anyone could get me from the side either.

"I saw James cutting across after me. I knew it was him all the time. I probably should have just kept running straight. I don't think he could have cut off the angle enough to tackle me, but I just didn't want to take a chance on having him tackle me.

"That would have been embarrassing."

Certainly, Nelms' performance today wasn't embarrassing. Other than Mark Moseley, who kicked two field goals, Nelms was the Redskin offense. Besides his punt return, he also brought back a kickoff 51 yards to midfield, although he said he never thought that run would end in a touchdown.

"No, I thought from the start I had to just get as many yards as I could from the return. There were always a lot of people around me."

Nelms wound up bringing back four punts for 91 yards and three kickoffs for 101. Toss in Moseley's successes from 51 and 46 yards and Mike Connell's 41.3 yard punting average, and it was a bright day for Washington's special teams, which had been having as many problems as the rest of the club the last month.

"It's just too bad we couldn't have let Mark have more chances," quarterback Mike Kruczek said. "The way he was kicking, I don't think he could have missed."

Kruczek, starting his first game in four years, because Joe Theismann was injured, blamed himself for not giving Moseley more opportunities. Kruczek had a pass intercepted at the Atlanta 21 and lost a fumble at the Redskin 47, both in the first quarter when Washington dominated the game.

"I felt good overall about my play," he said. There was no confusion in the huddle, like last week against Dallas, and we played with confidence. But the outcome is the only important thing. We have to score more than six points to win. We can't have so many turnovers; we can't make so many mistakes.

"If Joe comes back next week, he'll start, but I don't care. All I want to do is win. This is the first time I've played an entire game and wound up losing and I don't like the feeling."

Kruczek thought his unbeaten streak -- he won six in a row as a rookie subbing for Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw -- might not be broken when he threw an apparent 24-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Thompson in the fourth period. But the score was nullified by offsetting penalties.

"They didn't know what to call," Kruczek said, referring to the officials. "They were confused, so they just called something. There is no such thing as a head slap, but that's what they said Terry Hermeling did. That's crazy."

Kruczek completed 14 of 18 passes, but most of his tries were short, quick tosses. He did manage to connect with Art Monk for 41 yards, but he never unleashed anything resembling a bomb, reflecting Coach Jack Pardee's conservative game plan.

Kruczek's counterpart, Steve Bartkowski, rarely tossed anything but long passes. It took Bartkowski a half to adjust to the Redskins' heavy blitzing tactics, and then he was able to isolate receiver Alfred Jenkins on Joe Lavender. Once that connection began working, Altanta was able to rally for the victory.

"If they were going to blitz, they had to go man to man in the secondary," Bartkowski said. "We started blocking the blitzes better and then Alfred just had to beat his man. No one can stop him one on one.

"But the Redskin defense was difficult. They gave me a lot of different looks. It was hard completing anything against them. I'm just glad I don't have to play against them all the time. One game is hard enough."